An extreme atmospheric river storm that reached Northern California on Tuesday evening brought extreme wind gusts overnight and is continuing to wreak havoc Wednesday morning in the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada.
The National Weather Service reported Wednesday morning that gusts peaked well above 60 mph in the Sacramento area within the past 24 hours: 67 mph at McClellan Airport and 63 mph at Sacramento International Airport.
“This was stronger than the threshold that we would issue severe thunderstorm warnings for” in the Sacramento Valley, NWS meteorologist Scott Rowe said.
The NWS Sacramento office tweeted around 5 a.m. that the “strongest winds are over” and that gusts will gradually decrease. Shortly after 7:30 a.m., Rowe said gusts near Sacramento were around 28 mph.
“A far cry from what we saw in the overnight hours,” he said.
Near Tahoe, a peak gust of 125 mph was observed at Alpine Meadows, according to the NWS.
A blizzard warning is in effect for a long strip of the central and southern Sierra range through 2 a.m. Friday, with the NWS saying 5 to 8 feet of snow could fall in some areas, and that gusts could exceed 70 mph along ridgetops.
Rowe said the blizzard warning stretches from Plumas County down to, but not including, Yosemite National Park.
“We are experiencing near-whiteout conditions with those strong winds and falling snow,” Rowe said.
Mountain travel is very strongly discouraged.
Snow fell at very low elevations Tuesday in the foothills and northern Sacramento Valley, including a significant amount in Redding and some in Red Bluff. Snow reached 1,500 feet in Sonoma County while residents in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento saw rain turn to snow at 2,000 feet in places such as Applegate around 10 p.m.
Fierce, howling southerly winds knocked out power for tens of thousands in the valley, many of whom remain without power. The gusts toppled trees, and the mix of high winds with a half-inch and an inch of rain near the capital contributed to numerous traffic incidents on Sacramento-area highways. Downed power lines and trees also forced extended roadway closures, many of them overnight.
Sacramento’s Land Park neighborhood, largely blacked out since about 10 p.m., was a sea of fallen tree limbs and overturned trash barrels early Wednesday. A clump of fallen branches blocked West Land Park Drive, while city crews were beginning to sweep up limbs that had fallen throughout the park itself. Further south, on Fruitridge Ridge, city workers were feeding branches and limbs into a wood chipper near Belle Cooledge Library as commuters sped by.
While the storm didn’t make much in the way of rain for the Sacramento region overnight, forecasters said showers were expected throughout the day with up to three-quarters of an inch possible in the evening.
Precipitation will continue through at least Thursday near the capital, but winds will be much calmer by that evening, as slow as 5 mph, NWS forecasts show.
“It’s not gonna be a washout all day, but there will be periods of moderate to heavy rain intermittently” Thursday in Sacramento, Rowe said. “Definitely a good idea to keep that umbrella nearby and ready.”
Rowe defined an atmospheric river as “essentially just a concentrated ribbon of moisture that takes aim at California.”
“Right now that atmospheric river is centered just south of (Sacramento),” but there is a chance it could shift north Wednesday or Thursday, he said, which is why severe weather warnings including flash flood watches remain in place.
Here’s the latest on the storm and its affects on Sacramento and Northern California.
Power out for tens of thousands of PG&E, SMUD customers
Pacific Gas and Electric reported at 6 a.m. that more than 175,000 customers across 31 counties remain without power due to weather events.
More than 50,000 of the PG&E outages are in San Joaquin County, where the Sheriff’s Office tweeted that it has been experiencing intermittent issues with its 911 system.
Sacramento Municipal Utility District at 5:30 a.m. said it had about 106,000 customers impacted by outages, down from a peak of close to 150,000 around 2:30 a.m.
SMUD spokesman Chris Capra said the utility’s crews restored power to about 80,000 customers between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., but that still left another 80,000 homes and business in the dark.
Capra said he couldn’t provide an estimate as to when those customers would get their electricity back.
Most of the outages were caused by tree branches and other objects pulling down lines in the storm. Others were cascading effects of outages, such as blown transformers.
The storm initially cut power to a sizable chunk of SMUD’s territory, blacking out a quarter of the utility’s customer base. “We’ve made significant headway already,” Capra said.
But he said the dangerous winds caused delays in getting power restored; as a rule, the utility has to get crews out of cherry pickers once the winds exceed 25 mph.
“We can’t have ‘em up in buckets, up in lines,” Capra said. “As the winds die down, we can get crews out and address the issues of poles down.”
He said top priority is fixing live, fallen power lines, which can create major safety problems; the second priority is tackling areas where “big swaths of customers” are without power. “Then, later on, we get into what we call the onesies and twosies,” he said.
Freeway closures, light rail outages
There are traffic delays on many Sacramento-area freeways.
Caltrans at 4:30 a.m. reported that Interstate 5 was closed in both directions just west of Sacramento International Airport due to a big rig overturned on the bypass and “partially hanging over the side,” Caltrans District 3 tweeted.
The California Highway Patrol’s online activity log shows no injuries were reported in that big rig incident. Northbound I-5 reopened around 6:15 a.m. while southbound lanes remain closed.
Highway 99 was closed for hours overnight in both directions near Elverta Road due to downed power lines across the roadway. It reopened around 6:30 a.m.
A downed tree caused a three-vehicle crash on Highway 70 near Magnolia Road, Caltrans also reported in the early morning hours. That incident has been cleared.
Light rail service is also down across Sacramento. Regional Transit tweeted just after 6 a.m. that “all light rail lines” have been seriously impacted, and a bus bridge has been put in place throughout the system.
Interstate 80 remains open as of 6:30 a.m. but with broad chain controls for the mountains.
Caltrans officials said throughout the night that motorists should put off travel. The latest conditions can be found on Caltrans’ QuickMap App and website.
More snow heading for North State, I-5 closed in some areas
NWS forecasts show snow continuing at low elevations Wednesday morning. A few more inches could fall in Redding and Red Bluff, before snow levels rise to elevations above 3,000 feet in the afternoon.
Interstate 5 was closed in two places due to the snow: northbound traffic is being halted about 10 miles north of Redding, and southbound traffic is stopped at the Highway 3 junction in Yreka, according to Caltrans.
Additionally, chains are required along various stretches of I-5 in Shasta and Siskiyou counties, Caltrans says.
Several districts in the Sierra foothills were closed Wednesday due to the weather, including Camino Union and Pollock Pines Elementary schools.
El Dorado Union High, Latrobe Elementary and Pioneer Elementary school districts are on a delayed start.
Several other districts, including Tahoe Truckee Unified, opted for virtual learning.
In the Arden Arcade area, San Juan Unified School District canceled synchronous learning for all students. Officials told parents by telephone and email that asynchronous learning would continue for those with power and internet.
Students of Sacramento City Unified School District were encouraged to log on to distance learning if they could.
Flash flood watch issued near wildfire scar
The NWS issued a flash flood watch in place through Tuesday afternoon in the area of Northern California wildfire burn scars.
In particular, forecasters are concerned that heavy rainfall could “lead to flash flooding and debris flows” at the LNU Lightning Complex burn scar in parts of Yolo and Solano counties.
“Residents near the Hennessey Fire in the LNU Lightning Complex Burn Scar should prepare for potential flooding impacts,” the NWS said in its flash flood watch message issued at 1 a.m.
The Solano County Office of Emergency Services put an evacuation warning in place from Tuesday afternoon through 5 p.m. Thursday for a portion of the burn scar, with a map available on the county OES website. As of 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, the warning had not been upgraded to an order.
Further south in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, officials lifted warnings for the burn areas from the CZU Complex as the storm pushed on shore without much rain.
“The heavy rain has ended,” the weather service said in an early morning bulletin. “Flooding is no longer expected to pose a threat.”